SC's aging school buses costing taxpayers millions. Why?

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - State Superintendent Mick Zais is very blunt when describing the school bus situation in South Carolina.

"We have some buses in our fleet that are 25 years old and older," said Zais. "Children are riding the same buses their parents rode to school in."

If you're keeping count, that means some of the buses that take your children to school every day have been around since the Reagan Administration.

In 2007, the state legislature mandated that state-owned school buses must be replaced after 15 years of use. But there is a loophole, according to Zais.

"State law suggests but does not require that buses be replaced after they're 15 years old," said Zais.

Two thirds of the state's fleet is now over 15 years old. That's over 3,000 buses with a lot of wear and tear.

"It's certainly considered a severe duty," said Mike Bullman with the state Department of Education's transportation branch.

Consider this: in Lexington, a 15-mile city route takes an hour and 25 minutes by bus. With 28 bus stops, at least that many stops and starts, 30 left turns and 20 right turns and that's not once, but twice a day.

"The door gets cycled, 200 or 300 times a day and over the life of that bus if the normal cycle of the bus is 12 years, were turning it into 18 to 20 years," said Bullman.

Think it's just 180 days a year? Think again. Summer school keeps the buses going year-round and in an aging fleet, that means costly repairs. Consider the repair costs we found just for the Midlands buses for the 2011-2012 school year.

"We did a total in the Midlands area we replaced a total of 79 transmissions, 65 engines, and four differentials," said Bullman.

Engines alone they're about $10,000 a piece. At 65 buses, that's $650,000, but the state has a glut of flat front buses from the 90's. Those engines are twice the cost to replace. If just half were that type, that's a total of nearly a million dollars in repaired engines. That's the same as the cost of 12 new buses with warranties. Right now, 93 percent of the bus fleet is no longer under the manufacturer's warranty.

"That includes about 1,100 buses that were purchased in 2007-2008, which will come off of warranty," said Superintendent Zais.

That's right this year. Buses are inspected annually at 44 district garages, but from what we can tell, no one else inspects the fleet.

"Every bus would come into the shop sat least annually for a comprehensive annual inspection and repair," said Bullman.

The question is does all this wear and tear make these buses unsafe? The Department of Education does inspect the buses twice a year.

"We're not going to allow a bus to operate in an unsafe condition," said Bullman.

The EPA argues older, more polluting buses can mean significant health risks for students whose respiratory systems are still developing and they have a faster breathing rate. Then there's the issue of older buses breaking down. Consider Richland School District 2 with 90 buses, transporting and average of 20,000 students a day.

"We have six spares, and virtually every day those six spares are employed, so that tells you something," said Bob Davis, Richland 2's chief operating officer.

It's definitely an issue, according to Davis.

"It's a late issue, it's a break down issue, it's my child getting home late from school, my child being late getting picked up in the morning, those are the typical concerns," said Davis.

And the concerns aren't likely to be eased any time soon. The state legislature does not have a comprehensive plan this session to pay for a full fleet of new buses.

"So far, the House has given us about $10.5 million," said Zais.

That's not all the state's school system has asked for. Repair costs for the state's aging fleet are racking up big bills for taxpayers.

"For this coming budget, I asked for another $10 million above and beyond what we spent last year for repair parts and to cover the additional cost of diesel fuel," said Zais.

The state does most of the maintenance on its fleet, but mechanics find it tough to keep up. It adds up to overtime hours statewide.

"That translates into anywhere from 15 to an additional 15 to 20 technicians, based on our overtime right now," said Bullman.

Despite what's written in state requirements about replacing the state's fleet steadily across 15 years, only once in the last 6 years has that happened.  The 342 buses purchased in January are a small fix for the problem.

In 2010, they bought 86 used buses with an average age of 18 from Kentucky school districts. In 2011, the state bought 24 used buses from Alabama with an average age of 11, adding to the aging fleet.

The superintendent of education has said he's open to getting out of the bus business.

"If the state wants to decentralize this to the local level, I'm not opposed to it, all of my predecessors have opposed decentralization," said Zais.

Richland Two strongly opposes handing over the bus fleet to individual districts.  They believe the state's other 82 districts would fight it as well.

"What would happen to the property and general liability insurance if I added 90 buses to my vehicle fleet? What would happen to my workers compensation cost if I had mechanics added to my payroll, not just teachers and support staff? Can you see a problem?" said Davis.

The state also buys fuel in bulk at a deep discount.  Our investigation uncovered a program by the EPA offering $2 million in funding specifically to replace older school buses.  Out of the 1,000 districts nationwide that applied, only one is from South Carolina. The state never applied.

When we asked why, they would not request "free money". They say the size of the reimbursement, up to five buses, wasn't enough to make a serious improvement.

In January, a legislative committee looked at one solution -- privatizing the state's school bus system.

"The issue was so large and so complicated the committee actually recommended further study," said Davis.

"I don't know that there's some private contractors that want to take over an aging fleet and operate it because they know how expensive that is, to operate an aging fleet," said Zais.

Davis says the state should consider a lease financing option.

"I think that's probably the most viable, fiscal option for the state and it could work, and the state has looked at that before and in truth I'm not clear why we haven't pursued it," said Davis.

The leasing option lifts restrictions with the upfront costs allowing bonds to be used.  He says it would give the state time to catch up, but over the long term it could cost taxpayers more.  So what is it going to take to get the problem fixed?

"Like most issues in the state, it hasn't arisen to the hue and outcry from the public for the state to address it," said Davis.

Meaning until parents get out their phones and start calling their local legislators, the state may continue to ignore it's own regulation requiring it to replace the bus fleet every 15 years.

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